Half-Sister Act

- Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout, 19/11/2005-

Andrew Lloyd Webber, once the infallible cash machine of big-budget musical comedy, lost his touch a decade ago and has been AWOL from Broadway ever since. Now he's back--in both senses--with The Woman in White, a stage version of Wilkie Collins's 1860 shocker about two half-sisters who fall into the clutches of a murderous pair of swindling noblemen (Ron Bohmer and Michael Ball). Ms. Friedman, who underwent breast cancer surgery two weeks ago, returned to the show last Thursday in a front-page display of true grit. No less newsworthy, though, is Mr. Lloyd Webber's own return to form. Not only is "The Woman in White" a solid three-base hit, but for much of its length it proves to be a highly impressive piece of musical theater as well.

Not being a fan of Mr. Lloyd Webber's high-priced brand of kitsch, I confess to having been taken aback by the first act of "The Woman in White," whose witty domestic tone suggests a cross between "Pride and Prejudice" and "Dracula." Far more than merely fluent, it is at once beautifully paced and unabashedly operatic in scale (so much so that the canned sound of the synthesizer-laden, overly loud pit orchestra does the score a great disservice). The second act, alas, is less memorable--Mr. Lloyd Webber's big tunes, here as ever, are too obvious to be distinguished--but it holds together dramatically, and though I came away with an unmistakable sense of missed opportunities, "The Woman in White" is still an exceedingly well-made entertainment that will send you home sated.

Much of the show's artistic success is due to the quality of Mr. Lloyd Webber's collaborators, both on and off stage. Ms. Friedman, who starred in the original London production and is making her Broadway debut, is a sumptuous singing actress, and thought her voice sounds a bit frayed (and no wonder!), she is immensely appealing as Marian, the spunky sister. The rest of the cast is strong, especially Michael Ball as Count Fosco, the comic villain. Charlotte Jones, who wrote the book, has neatly simplified Collins's Gothic narrative structure, and David Zippel's lyrics are direct and effective, if a bit too heavily salted with end-stopped couplets.

The other "star" of "The Woman in White" is William Dudley, who created the computer-animated 3-D video projections that supply most of the show's decor (the set consists of six interlocking curved screens that revolve around the stage on a turntable). While some kinks have yet to be worked out, the set is very, very tricky to light and often draws attention to itself at the expense of the actors--Mr. Dudley's innovative scenic effects give "The Woman in White" a startlingly cinematic fluidity of which Trevor Nunn, the director, has taken full and ingenious advantage.

In the end, though, it is Baron Lloyd-Webber (the hyphen came with his life peerage) who walks away with top honors. "The Woman in White" isn't as good as it might have been, but it's so much better than I expected as to make me long for Mr. Lloyd Webber to now try his hand at a full-fledged comic opera. "Northanger Abbey," anyone?

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing!

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